'History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember'. (1066 and All That).
Previous books by David Reynolds on America, Churchill, Origins of WW2 and the Cold War established him as a leading historian. His book on Churchill, in particular, was received with widespread acclaim.
The current flood of books on the Great War with many more to come (these will be followed by books on the anniversary of each of the four years of the war, with no doubt emphasis on the Somme) concentrate on the outbreak, fighting, and final victory over Germany and her allies in 1918. Very little is said about the consequences of a war that toppled four Empires, saw America emerge as a world power (a reluctant one), and caused over 12 million military deaths at a cost of at least 6 billion dollars. David Reynolds book seeks to rectify this. He succeeds spendidly.
Many historians have implied that between 1914 and 1945 Europe took leave of its senses. These, it is said, were years of death, misery and degredation. The horrors of Stalinism and Nazism overshadow the era. Reynolds acknowledges the shadow that the Great War cast over Europe in particular. On the other hand, the revulsion at the suffering plus war weariness served to create an atmosphere which embraced new ideas of openness, discussion and morality.
The author argues we 'have lost touch with the Great War'despite the number of novels and poems written about the war. The war, he says, has become a 'literary war, detached from its moorings in historical events'. Our view of the war is now one of mud, blood and futility. He argues that by reducing the war to personal tragedies we have lost the big picture: 'history has been distilled into poetry'.
Reynolds reminds us that life went on after 1918 but in a world turned molten by the volcano of war. Most of the world was not in perpetual mourning, the 1920's were not, as some have argued, a 'morbid age'. In his book he explores the impact of the war on the period up to 1939 when another global war broke out. He looks at various themes such as liberal democracy, colonial empires, the world economy, cultural values, and the constant search for world peace. He points out that not all of the legacies of 1914-18 were bad or negative, many were positive and transformative.
He demonstrates that Great Britain's experience was quite different from that of much of Europe. This is in fact a major focus of his 650 page book. We were never invaded or seriously bombed. We did not have to face revolution or, apart from Ireland, civil war.
Reynolds examines the impact of the war in Africa, Asia, Palestine and Mesopotamia.
He points out the impact of the war on the USA noting that we suffered 723000 deaths, the US 116000, of these some 55000 died from influenza in the 1918 pandemic.
In the US Civil War more than 620,000 died, more than in both World Wars.
In other chapters the author discusses the onset of the Second World War, the issue of Remembrance and a conclusion in which he summarises the long shadow's overall effect on the period after 1918.
The book is replete with excellent illustrations including cartoons, paintings, posters, photographs and memorials. The index is very sound and comprehensive.
This is a thought-provoking book. It is learned, well-researched and written in an elegant and clear style. It enhances our understanding not only of the Great War but also how that terrible war has affected for good and ill the lives of millions around the globe to this day.
Very highly recommended.
This is a World War One book with a difference. It is less about the war and more about how it has been remembered, understood and interpeted, both by the generation that experienced it, and their descendants. The principal focus is on Britain but other major belligerents are not neglected.
Assumptions are made not just about the nature of the First World War but about the eras preceding and following it. Edwardian England was an age of innocence. The lights went out and were not lit again. The 1920s and 1930s were `morbid decades'.
One of the great strengths of this book is to correct some of these clichés. Edwardian England was rent by bitter class and ethnic antagonisms - not least in Ireland, which was on the brink of civil war. It was striking to learn that today's debates about the status of the UK are in many ways reprises of Edwardian controversies. Home rule was on the cards for Scotland in 1914. Winston Churchill devised an elaborate scheme for no less than 7 English regional parliaments.
As for the morbid years of 1930s, Britain was politically more stable than she was before 1914, more prosperous and peaceful than its continental neighbours (on account of relatively generous welfare benefits and widespread home-ownership). A book like this does not refute the conventional understanding of the immediate pre and post war years but reveals it to be too partial, too shallow. The reality was and is a lot more interesting. And not just for England. The influence of the Battle of the Somme in Ireland is absolutely fascinating, a battle in which many thousands of Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, perished. Ireland's own national myth, the Easter Rising of 1916, is also discussed: though Ireland was not then a sovereign state and was not belligerent in the war, many Catholic Irish fought and died for Britain and the Easter 1916 rising cannot be understood in isolation from the great conflict on the continent.
Similar observations about the mythologizing narratives around the conflict apply in relation to countries like Germany. Hitler made up his famous account of his war experience in Mein Kampf. A leg wound spared him from the Battle of the Somme (a battle as murderous in its impact for the Germans as much as it was for the British) and his supposed blindness from a British gas attack was probably psychosomatic. The Nazi cult of the trench fighter (which Hitler never was) was a confection. The supposed lure of right-wing ideology among German trench veterans in the 1920s overlooked the truth that socialist veterans' associations enrolled greater numbers of former fighters than their right-wing counterparts.
The book also discusses to what extent the war has been remembered at the expense of being understood. I had my own perceptions of the war shaped by studying Wilfred Owen's poetry for O Level English, as generations of schoolchildren since the 1960s. Owen himself was a decorated officer, with a reputation for reckless courage under fire, who won a military cross for fighting and killing Germans. This biographical detail has not prevented him from elevation to the pantheon of anti-war heroes. But, great as his literary talents were, Reynolds seems sceptical whether the cult of the war poet (which dates from the 1960s and 70s and has been fed by historians and critics of otherwise different political persuasions, such as Paul Fussell and John Keegan) really furthers our understanding of why the British enrolled in great numbers to fight, kill and die. After all, the British army was, from 1914 untill the introduction of conscription in 1916, the second largest volunteer army in history. This is a striking fact, which the sanctification of the war poets does nothing to answer. In the Second World War, which received opinion considers a just war, conscription was introduced at the very outset (Incidentally, the largest ever volunteer army in history was the Indian army of 1939-45). The first day of the Battle of the Somme has come to define the war. But there was so much more to it than that.
What I have described above is not the end of it. Many subjects are covered. The war's long shadow extends in many directions, over great stretches of time. We are as far from World War One as its participants were as far from the war against Napoleon. But the shadow of the Great War can still be discerned in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. This book helps us understand so much as to why this is still the case, and is likely to be so for some time to come. This is definitely one of the best history books I have read for quite a while. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This is an exceptionally interesting book about the after-effects of the First World War, though much of what Reynolds writes about cannot strictly be described as its after-effects, and in Part One there is also a good deal of pre-war material and of attitudes during the War itself. There is, for example, a beautiful chapter about the English poetry written and the paintings made DURING the War. (Their impact AFTER the war is analyzed with equal brilliance in Part Two of the book.) But Part One is mostly about the history of the European countries and of the United States in the inter-war period, and even readers who are familiar with it will surely find here many nuggets and aperçus of which they have been unaware.
In particular Reynolds aims to show how little, compared with the continent, the War destabilized Britain and why this was so. Even though it was not always apparent in the strident language of some conservative politicians and newspaper about the dangers of the Labour Party or in that of the more militant trade unions, there was in fact a much stronger consensus about democracy and about distrust of the far left or the far right. Especially in times of crisis, Britain's opposing parties came together in coalitions: how many readers were conscious of the fact that coalitions governed Britain for 21 of the 31 years between 1914 and 1945? In a very technical chapter on economics, Reynolds also shows that, despite well-known distress (to some extent mitigated by the dole), the British economy actually "came through the 1930s much better than most of the developed world". He also pays exceptionally close attention to Irish affairs. There was of course first the war against Britain and then the bitter civil war; but after 1922 Eire, too, enjoyed a democratic stability which it would have been hard to foresee in 1922. In the domestic history of the United States also the War had left the social and political fabric largely unaffected.
The contrast with Weimar Germany and with the successor states in Eastern Europe could not be starker. Germany had been humiliated by defeat, and crippled by reparations and inflation; her constitution made coalitions not a matter of choice but of necessity and these were therefore always unstable and quite unable to agree on how to deal with crises such as the Great Depression. On all of this, Hitler will cash in. The successor states were ostensibly created to give expression to national self-determination, though in fact the borders were often the result of fighting after 1918, and therefore not recognized by their neigbours; and most had substantial discontented minorities within them.
The discussions of the after-effects of the Great War in the Soviet Union, post-war Italy and France are treated rather cursorily compared with Britain and the United States.
Part Two begins with a chapter highlighting how different from the First World War were the tactics on land and in the air of the Second, partly because of the "lessons learnt" from the First. These "lessons" also shaped the decisive final outcome: total victory and Unconditional Surrender this time, and a United Nations that was supposed to be very different from the ineffective League of Nations.
In the 1960s there were new debates about the interpretation of the First World War. Was it a war into which the world had stumbled as the result of the misjudgments of individuals? Did American enter into the First World War in the cause of freedom and self-determination or to impose the American way of life on the world?
In Germany there was the debate about whether Nazi aggression was an aberration or a continuity of German ambitions which had caused the First World War; in France, whether collaboration of so many Frenchmen in the Vichy period was an aberration and whether the real continuity was between the heroes of the First World War and the Resistance in the Second.
In the inter-war period, most people in Britain (though of course there was always a dissenting minority) took the view that, dreadful though the carnage had been, the War had not been pointless. But in the 1960s Alan Clark, Joan Littlewood and A.J.P.Taylor popularized the notion that the First World War, into which bumbling statesmen had slithered, caused y bumbling statesmen, had been a pointless slaughter caused by generals who were "donkeys". This idea was reinforced by the collections, published around that time, and especially in Britain and Australia, of the experiences of individual soldiers on the Western Front and at Gallipoli - Reynolds shows how, in Australia, this coincided with and contributed to that country's emotional detachment from Great Britain - and these, in turn, will be followed by a spate of famous novels right into the new millennium and into the time when the last survivors of the Great War died as centenarians.
In the 1960s the European Economic Community its members surmounted the hostilities of the two wars. In 1964 a film about the Great War was a joint Franco-German production shown simultaneously in both countries; and Reynolds describes a similar joint commemoration by Australians and Turks in the 1980s and 1990s. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the 50th anniversary in 1966 of the Easter Rising revived passions among Catholics and Protestants alike and would within two years trigger the thirty years of The Troubles. With the dedication in 1998 of the Island of Ireland Peace Tower at Messines in Belgium, commemorating the deaths of Protestant and Irish soldiers at that battle, we have here also at least an aspiration of reconciliation.
Despite Russia's immense losses in the Great War, the communists did nothing to memorialize it. Only in 2004, after the fall of communism were the heroes of that war commemorated.
This is an immensely rich and stimulating book based on an enormous range of reading.
on 24 August 2014
The Great War became the First World War, a prelude and indeed a cause of the Second. Whereas the latter was an heroic struggle of the underdog Britain with the great Satan, Hitler's Germany, the former was a scene of unimaginable carnage for no obvious good. Cemeteries strewn across the Western Front, combined with war poetry, the poignancy of family photographs and the discovery of thousands of accounts left by those who fought have combined in the modern mind to depict the war of one of futility and pathos. The fact that the poppies in Flanders fields were all young men in their youth or prime adds to the poignancy.
Reynolds aptly describes the impact that first war had not only on the present day but to those living in the inter-war years, with particular emphasis on Britain. One interesting contemporary resonance is the argument he makes that the glue of the two world wars that helped unite the UK, and diminish nationalist sentiment in Wales and Scotland, is now wearing off.
Another great war, however, is too high a price to pay for keeping the union together. Save lives and lose the Scots seems a reasonable deal. After all if there is a history more filled with myth than that of the legacy of the great war it is the whole of Scottish history.
on 10 November 2015
Do not expect an orthodox academic retracing of the events. This book is about our society now and how it sees and was shaped by the power of the past. Not so much a conventional record as a series of essays on the run of historical consequences, an attempt at an insight into how we read and misread them and how these imperfect perspectives inform what we so self-confidently think today.
Reynolds takes a wide brief, from national culture to artistic representation. There is emphasis on Britain’s experience and how that differed from that on the European continent or in the United States or the Dominions. That is natural. The British experience was frequently different from those countries on whose land the battles were actually fought or those who were an ocean further away.
Reynolds uses the long lens of hindsight to build an objective perspective of how the worlds of 1914, 1939 have affected today. His scholarship gives authority and credibility and the arguments are well put. But the important spur is to have the debate on the facts and myths with yourself. You will have to appreciate a different approach. If you do, it’s worth the read.
on 3 February 2014
David Reynolds is a widely published and respected academic historian who has written a book about the Great, or First World, War which is not another history of the war or some part of it. Instead he has chosen to look at the war's significance - political, social, economic, moral and cultural - for the rest of the 20th century and how attitudes, especially British ones, to its Western Front in particular, changed over time.
As Reynolds recognises, the 21 years following 1918 were post-war and not yet "inter-war" a necessary perspective when discussing events before the outbreak of another world war. I cannot fault the six chapters that form Legacies, the first part of this work but as a student of 20th century European history I didn't feel as though I had learned much that was new. It was only when the author discussed the American experience that I felt I was reading something fresh.
Refractions, the second part of this book, I found much more interesting as it provides analysis of the impact of the First World War, as the Great War had become, on the second half of the century and beyond. As Reynolds mentions in his Introduction, the war is viewed not only as history but through a cultural prism in which poetry, particularly that written by a handful of anti-war poets, has loomed large in shaping both individual memory and collective remembrance. The author shows how it was that in the 1960's the war came to be seen as an almost totally negative and wasteful experience and its British participants as either incompetent generals or duped victims. These perceptions have largely conditioned popular understanding of events such as the first day of the Somme. As Reynolds admits, academic revisionists, such as Sheffield, advocates of a more positive assessment of the war in its historical context, have, outside of academe, struggled to turn the tide in challenging these firmly held views.
This is a well-written book and an excellent purchase for the general reader, though someone with a wider knowledge of history may find the second part more engaging and challenging than the first. A novel approach to the historical understanding of this war which should be applauded in attempting to appeal to a wider audience whilst also being of value to a more specialist reader.
on 8 January 2015
The book is not a revisionist account of the first WW but an attempt at debunking some recent myths which took shape in the popular imagination around the 1960's and 70's thanks to influential historians and film makers who provided a narrow and biased narrative of the war inspired by the anti war poets. The author attempts to strike a balance by widening or multiplying our vantage points and by analysing how historical memories are constructed . One of his aims is to remind us the war did not happen only in the trenches of Flanders and Northern France and the British tommy wasn't the only victim or protagonist in this worldwide conflict. In addition there were far reaching geopolitical consequences in the Near East and the Far East following the war let alone Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire which continue to have major implications today, witness for instance the rise of IS attempting to unify the Ottoman Arab provinces torn apart by the Sykes- Picot agreement or the mounting tensions between Russia and the Ukraine.
The author succeeds in providing an insightful and comprehensive account of the interwar years covering politics , economics, art and literature. He contrasts the relatively tranquil situation prevailing in Britain with the political and economic upheaval that swept through most continental countries in the wake of the war and led to the rise of Fascism and Communism.He counteracts vigorously the claims of other historians describing the interwar years in Britain as the morbid years. The exception however to this optimistic view is the violent detachment of Ireland and the resulting turmoil of the so called " The Irish Troubles" resonating down our own times.
In short this is an original highly readable account of a significant part of twentieth century history by a historian at the top of his analytical powers. One of the best history books I read this year.
on 10 December 2013
This is one of the best written and most readable history books I have read . The interpretation of interwar history was fascinating. I was also impressed by the authors review of the evolution of how we come to see the Great War since the 1960's.One of the best of the books I have come across in the flood unleashed by the imminent centenary of 1914.
on 2 December 2015
Easy to read - makes it both entertaining and educational.
on 2 January 2015
In my view 'History' begins first not with the events of their creation but the interpretation of those events. The popular mythology or collective memory of the event then goes on to shape the present and the future. This book is of particular interest to historians because it mainly looks at how the collective memory has been shaped and shifted over time in various countries. Influenced by poets, contemporary events, political ambitions and historians. Then the impact of monuments, graves and ceremony. Finally through television and the emerging impact of the internet. The Great War has entered collective memory in this country not as a single narrative but a shifting one. Viewed very differently in the inter war years for example, before there was any such thing as an inter-war period. It is fascinating to see this analysed [and see the differences between the main combatant countries collective memory] in such a masterly way by David Arnold, who hands it down to his people like Moses. Arrogant scholarship perhaps but nevertheless he has the badge to do so. It also strikes many chords with my journey into WW1 from A level history [AJP Taylor] through various authors covered by Arnold which ended with Holmes, Sheffield and Niall Ferguson. So I have journeyed much the same path as Arnold and realised that ‘remembrance’ based on individual loss and tragic waste are not what it was all about. There is a lot of myth hanging around.
I have a house which sits in the rear areas for the BEF and forward of the valley’s end, lie the garden crematories and Lutyens monument to the missing on the Somme at Thiepval. Walking around these areas I have come to feel that real meaning and understanding why 2.5 million of my fellow citizens voluntarily chose to fight in 4 year war which offered nothing in material gain to them was important and demands my attention. I am convinced they did this because they choose to prevent something they felt was preventable and undesirable. They [and I mean the common British people and its Commonwealth] never mutinied in the face of the setbacks and conditions, either at the battle or home fronts – other than Ireland perhaps and then not universally across that island. Instead they endured a struggle to support & master the technical aspects of warfare which had eliminated positional movement and committed themselves to Total War on an unprecedented scale. Finally in 1918 they mastered the battlefield and it was this Army [the largest ever put together and deployed by the British] that then rolled forwarded and convinced the opponent’s generals that continuation of the war was impossible [which was the correct analysis, the German’s were strategically bankrupt by October 2014 and technically bankrupt by August 1918]. I salute the Tommie’s and the technical management that allowed this to happen. But more importantly the British people had pursued a common aim based on broad shared values, both of which were honest and well meaning. I see nothing pointless in their sacrifices and hardships and actually have come to think their aims were laudable and; in any event their choices were limited.
What is less satisfactory, is what the British have done with their efforts. Remembering them would please ‘them’ but not remembering what ‘they’ fought and work for and supported, would not. This is an important work which attempts to challenge the deficiency in the current collective memory and perhaps allows us to take the values of those people [all of them on every war front and that includes the Home Front] and use them to better purpose now and in the future. Would those British people regard the EU as nothing other than a miracle? Anything which prevents the causes for war on this scale and avoids the miscalculations of late summer 1914 is a price I feel they might say was worth paying.